On Maps and Authorial Authority in Fantasy (guest post)

Should fantasy novels have a map?

No, for three reasons. First, almost every fantasy author lacks the necessary geographic skills. Not only do you need to understand the interaction of tectonics and geology with climate, vegetation and the distribution of fauna, you also need to grasp historical and contemporary migration, settlement, trade and cultural patterns. You even have to know something about toponymy and the way this varies within and between cultures. Unless you’re an expert (and even with a Ph.D. in geography, specialising in cartography. and a lifetime of academic teaching and research behind me, I often feel out of my depth) you’re going to look silly in the eyes of an expert, as evidenced by these recent discussions.

Second, your story should be self-contained. If it needs to refer to a map, surely that’s evidence of poor writing. And if it doesn’t refer to it, what use is the map? In fact, shouldn’t we be moving away from those tired old epic fantasies where you need a map to work out where the hell you are?

Third, and most important, due to western hegemony, maps have become instruments of colonial and capitalist oppression. While their makers have convinced us they’re neutral, objective and value-free scientific documents, maps have been used to dominate, divide and deceive. Maps are gendered, constructed using masculinist language. They are coded in the language of the military, as all ‘base’ mapping is funded initially for military use. Why else is the British mapping agency called the ‘Ordnance Survey’, and their chief cartographer the ‘Surveyor-General’? Their subject matter is what makes money or controls people, and they have been imposed by the West on other cultures as a grid to straighten them out – in many cases literally, as with the north/south and east/west road grids slapped on to indigenous lands around the world, obliterating indigenous places and names. Go read up on the Radcliffe Line and come back to this discussion after you’ve dried your eyes.

So, as I was saying, every author needs to draw a map. Was I saying that? I was, really. Even if your map doesn’t end up in the book, if you’re creating a secondary world or a modified earth, you need to keep your story spatially straight. Even though you’re unlikely to ever become an expert, if you’re creating a secondary world you should understand enough geography to convince a reader they can trust you. Forget about the experts: they’ll always find a flaw in your work because they refuse to suspend their disbelief. You’re aiming at enough verisimilitude to get readers to trust you.

And here’s where a good map can work wonders. There’s a gazillion books out there. Who’s a reader to trust? You can signal to your reader by means of a well-conceived, thoughtful and comprehensive map that you’re one they can commit their time to; or you can put in a cursory map and convince them to go somewhere else. If your map’s not above average, please don’t include it. Or consider getting a professional to assist you.

Frontispiece map from the author’s current work in progress.
This is a thematic map of a secondary world showing earthquake frequency. It forgoes all the pointy-witches-hats and faux-medieval dressing, serving as an artifact for the story, having been drawn by one of the characters.

Sounds like a lot of work? If you’re writing in a secondary world you’re already doing the work required, or you should be. You’ve had to think about all the pesky geography I listed above. You’re on top of the all-important minutiae lending your story moment by moment believability. You’re striving for consistency and verisimilitude. A map is a visible expression of this.

But shouldn’t your story be self-contained? Sure it should. So let’s not put a cover on a book either, or a blurb on the back. These are devices for short-cutting the reading process, after all; to give the reader some idea of what’s coming, of the flavour of the experience in store for them. As is a map. In fact, your map plays an important role in keeping your story self-contained. Imagine a Lonely Planet guide without maps. You want to explore a new country, but you have to go somewhere else to get that necessary spatial overview. Defeats the purpose of the book, right? In the same way, if you don’t give readers the opportunity to pop their heads above the canopy of your story and get a look at the terrain – to see how far they’ve come in both a literal and metaphorical sense – the may well get lost in the forest of your words.

But my fantasy story doesn’t involve travelling! It takes place entirely inside a person’s clutch-purse! Do I need a map? Well, does the purse have geography? Do you have competing social organisations? Are there territories? Do they have conflict? Are the boundaries and liminal zones important? Would it benefit the reader to see these? Would it help establish the ‘otherness’ of your story in their minds? I bet it would.

And what of the notion that maps are devices to dominate, divide and deceive? Ah, here we have a chance to do what we authors do best: to subvert the hegemonic discourse. By all means, use the language of oppression, but remake it. Co-opt it! You don’t have to draw a pointy-witch’s-hat faux-medieval map. You can draw an oblique perspective. You can fill your map with misdirection. You can scrawl annotations over it and make it an actual artifact of your story. You can make geological maps, three-dimensional cutaways, cartoons, whatever suits your story. In fact, I await the day when authors realise they can be as creative – and subversive – with their maps as they are with their text.

I wish I’d thought this through when I began writing my fantasy trilogies in the 1980s. But now I have, and I’m hard at work on something I hope will subvert fantasy cartographic tropes. If enough of us do this, remaking the language of maps, perhaps maps will become relevant again. They still have plenty to offer us.

Dr. Russell Kirkpatrick is a New Zealander currently living in Canberra. His two fantasy trilogies are published by HarperCollins and Orbit (UK and US). Until 2014 he lectured in Geography at the University of Waikato, specialising in cartography. His atlases have won prestigious awards, including from the British Cartographic Society.


Of Swords and Breakfast

The thoroughly delightful, ridiculously talented Tansy Rayner Roberts shares her thoughts on the difference between male and female fantasy writers.

Tehani is totally trying to trap me into saying something controversial, by requesting a post about the difference between male and female writing in fantasy.

Since I first started reading Proper Grownup Fantasy at the age of thirteen, I noticed women writers and sought them out. Not necessarily because their writing offered something that male writing didn’t, but because – well. Maybe it did. I find myself drawn to female voices, though a book has to offer me far more than just a female byline to capture my attention.

Warrior women photograph Attribution Some rights reserved by Ran Yaniv Hartstein

As a reader, I particularly love deep characterisation and unusual takes on gender roles, and frocks, and humour, and smutty bits, and strange magic, and to be honest I’m far more interested in the stories that happen inside the castle walls than outside of them. None of those things are exclusive to women’s writing, but why shouldn’t I seek it out there? Why shouldn’t I assume that I’m more likely to find what I want in a book by a woman than a book by a man?

After all, it seems pretty clear that there are a huge number of readers who only seek out what they think they want in a novel from books with a male name on the cover. And I think that’s very depressing. Also, as a woman who occasionally reviews books, I do think it’s very important for me to single out and discuss books by women – or rather, as someone who reads a lot of women, I think it’s important that I keep reviewing books, as my small attempt to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

The truth is that we all filter our reading, before we even pick up a book. We use all manner of filters: what we know of that author already, what we’ve heard about their work, what we think of the cover. Gender bias often plays a part in that too. I do tend to assume that with a male fantasy author, I’m more likely to get an abundance of fight scenes, and not enough chatting over breakfast scenes, but that’s a completely unfair assumption. (look at David Eddings, his books were PRACTICALLY ALL BREAKFAST CHATTING, remember Breakfast of Magicians? It was between Queen of Elevenses and Tower of Gossip and Stew).

Some of my favourite books ever involving swords are by women: Jennifer Roberson, Ellen Kushner, Tamora Pierce. Some of my favourite books involving witty dialogue, smutty bits and pretty clothes are written by men: Simon R Green, Kim Newman, Neil Gaiman. Some books (the best books ever) have both of these things! I certainly don’t assume that a woman is going to automatically produce all the things I love best in books.

Around the fire photographAttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Jane Starz

But on the other hand: female voices, I am drawn to them. I seek them out, I tend to enjoy books which have them far more than books which don’t, and I choose not to feel guilty about that.


Tansy Rayner Roberts is the author of Power and Majesty (Creature Court Book One) and The Shattered City (Creature Court Book Two, April 2011) with
Reign of Beasts (Creature Court Book Three, coming in November 2011) hot on its tail. Her short story collection Love and Romanpunk will be published as part of the Twelfth Planet Press “Twelve Planets” series in May.

This post comes to you as part of Tansy’s Mighty Slapdash Blog Tour, and comes with a cookie fragment of new release The Shattered City:

Roast goat. Someone had said something about roast goat. Velody followed her nose to the spit, where two lads were slashing strips off the beast, layering them up on platters for the crowd. She found a dish of the rarest slices, oozing blood, and ate ravenously, licking her fingers. “Love a demme with an appetite,” leered one of the goat lads.

Velody wiped a smear of blood from her chin. “Don’t we all?”

Fresh meat was a rare extravagance, and her body thrummed with it as she turned back to face the crowd. The music slid under her skin, and she could feel Ashiol’s presence nearby. She could not see him in the crowd, but his animor sparked against her own, bringing mixed sensations of security and lust. You don’t want him, she told herself sternly. It’s the meat making you crazy.